If you ask me, Kowalski from the 1971 movie “Vanishing Point” is the greatest race-car driver of all time. Kurt Busch of Las Vegas is second.
Mario, A.J. and Richard Petty were pretty good, too. And Jim Clark and Senna on the other side of the pond.
But Kurt Busch is second among the great lead foots, because heading into the second half of the NASCAR season he has charged into a playoff position, No. 9 in points, and he has done this with a small team. And unlike Barry Newman, who played the brooding Kowalski in the movies, he has not been aided by a hip Nevada disc jockey called Super Soul, only by a pit crew that is improving but still makes mistakes.
Plus, he has had only two altercations on the track, and he even accepted blame for one. And it has been more than a year since he has “refrained from kicking the ass” of an auto racing reporter, as he put it at Dover. He doesn’t throw the finger nearly as much.
But until Twitter came along, nobody really cared too much about what guys who drove hard for a living said, unless it was 1976 and you were on a turnpike in Oklahoma, and a voice crackled over the CB radio saying there was a bear at mile marker 14, good buddy, on the other side of Stuckey’s.
If people cared about what race-car drivers said or how they acted in ol’ A.J. Foyt’s day, ol’ A.J. would not have won Indianapolis four times, because ol’ A.J. would have been suspended from here to Langhorne.
(For those who did not subscribe to National Speed Sport News, Langhorne was a one-mile dirt track north of Philadelphia.)
It has been nine years since Busch won the Cup Series championship in 2004, the first year NASCAR had a system of playoff races, which NASCAR probably regretted. Because having a brash kid from Las Vegas win the championship did not sit that well in the southern states.
To be frank, it didn’t even sit that well in his hometown. I was at the NASCAR Cafe on the Strip when Busch won the Cup, and people were booing and swearing, except at the Star Nursery table, one of his sponsors when he was knee high to a gear-shift knob.
Busch thanked his sponsors while driving for Jack Roush, proprietor of one of NASCAR’s biggest teams. But Busch no longer drives for one of NASCAR’s biggest teams, mostly because Busch speaks his mind, and because he has altercations, and because he ran afoul of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies down in Phoenix one year while in a hurry to leave the track.
Now he drives for Furniture Row Racing, which is sort of like playing shortstop for the Astros.
Furniture Row Racing is based in Denver, and that right there tells you all you need to know. Denver is 1,581 miles from Kannapolis, N.C., where all those Intimidators are from, which is a long way, 23 hours, 27 minutes, to be exact. Though it probably would take a hopped-up Kowalski only about 15 hours or so in a similarly hopped-up Dodge Challenger R/T.
Mopar Power, baby.
So now Busch thanks his sponsor, instead of sponsors.
He finished sixth in the night race at Daytona on Saturday, avoiding the wrecks, another thing he is pretty good at. It was the third consecutive top-10 finish for Busch and the No. 78 team, and when was the last time a car with the nondescript number of 78 finished in the top 10 three straight times?
The top 10 usually is reserved for the cars with single-digit and low numbers, and the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson’s number), and whatever number Cole Trickle was in “Days of Thunder.”
Perhaps, then, it was no coincidence that Busch sported Days of Thunder colors in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona on Friday night. He may even have had a perfectly matched set of tires for the last green-flag segment of the Cup race, because rubbin’ is racin’.
Anyway, Busch climbed five spots in the points, from 14th to ninth. His is the only one-car team in the Chase for the Cup positions, limited to the top 12 in points and whatever spot Dale Earnhardt Jr. occupies at season’s end.
Like him or loathe him, if you must. But at 34, Kurt Busch appears to be driving better than ever. He’s like Kowalski at the end of “Vanishing Point.” He can see a sliver of daylight between those bulldozers blocking the road and he’s going for it.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.